Shoehorned into an already well stuffed Marvel sequel (and…let’s do Giant Man!) in the successful Captain America franchise was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it origin story for T’Challa, better known to fans as The Black Panther. A marvelous mid 60s creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this hero defined aspirational black culture—a king from the fictional African country of Wakanda, rich enough in natural resources and groundbreaking technology that the influence of the white western world was not only unnecessary, but actively avoided. Despite the rush job in Civil War, that film did a fairly good job of introducing Chadwick Boseman in the role, giving him a tragedy to rise above and an enemy to vanquish. Considering the popular reaction to the character and an increasingly diverse Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that the Marvel Machine would give Black Panther his own film. The biggest questions for the production probably revolve around how well such a film would balance action movie hijinks with themes of racial justice and history; I’m glad to report that Boseman, director Ryan Coogler and an extremely talented cast of supporting characters storm through thrilling paces and deftly deal with a variety of elephants in the room using equal parts style, humor, character and heart.
Boseman, coming off an underappreciated turn in last year’s Marshall, has quickly joined his DNA with that of the Wakandan king and protector. He strikes a perfect balance between heroic swagger and humble duty to his people, and as noted early and shown often, it’s a tough job that will take more than birthright to master. He’s aided by a cadre of magnificent women, a sister, a lover and a lieutenant who exhibit mastery in their respective fields of science, spycraft and soldiering. There’s an ongoing debate over what kind of role in the world a hyper advanced but secretive nation should play, which along with many nice touches including but not limited to some fun tech upgrades (this is Marvel, after all) to T’Challa’s classic costume end up serving as subtle but overarching metaphors on race and society, both from the past and very much today. This leads to one of the best-conceived and executed villains of the MCU, Killmonger, played with anger and menace by Michael B. Jordan as the natural corollary to T’Challa’s thoughtful grace. All heroes must pass a variety of trials by fire, and Killmonger brings both physical and spiritual obstacles to batter our protagonist with that truly lead to a transformative character arc while illustrating several complicated dichotomies between the foes. The rest of the players involved soar—even Martin Freeman as the overwhelmed CIA operative Everett Ross gets some heroic notes—and by the time the dust has settled, we’re staring at what may become one of the most popular Marvel heroes to ever splash across the silver screen. As names like Hemsworth, Downey Jr. and Evans age/expense out of their seemingly iconic roles, Boseman and a few other young upstarts appear to be more than ready to take on whatever challenges Marvel Studios cook up for their ever-expanding fictional universe.